Eye on Maharashtra: Athawale lives up to his reputation for providing comic relief in state politics

By vowing to ensure Devendra Fadnavis’ return as chief minister, Athawale reinforces his ‘comic’ image, writes Sujata Anandan

Eye on Maharashtra: Athawale lives up to his reputation for providing comic relief in state politics

Sujata Anandan

Every court needs a jester and playing cards is no fun without at least a couple of jokers. Ramdas Athawale provides just that kind of comic relief to Maharashtra’s politics with his outrageous comments, so over the top that one wonders if he means them or is simply lightening the discourse. For example, did he really think chanting, “Go Corona, go!” would drive the virus away? But then he got a whole gullible nation chanting the mantra.

When Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut was spewing venom on the opponents of the government, Athawale visited her home and made her an offer to join his faction of the Republican Party of India.

Seriously? The RPI? Originally set up by Dr B.R. Ambedkar to oppose exploitation by upper caste Hindus of Dalits?

Of course, Ranaut turned down the offer but then was revealed Athawale’s real purpose in making her the offer – he wanted a role in her future films!

Was that just a joke or did he really express a long-standing desire to be a film hero? I thought the latter, for throughout his political career Athawale has been posing in different costumes on swings, bikes and other props like the hero he desired to be. Every time I went to meet him, he would ask, “Aapko mera photo nahin chahiye?” I could see that he was seriously disappointed that I had not brought a photographer along.

Illustration by Clyde Crasto
Illustration by Clyde Crasto

Then there was the year when the makers of reality show Big Boss thought they would like Ramdas Athawale on their show. Athawale was very excited that he was finally making it to the screen. When they changed their mind, his disappointment was so great that he threatened to sue them under the Prevention of Atrocities Against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act meant to safeguard Dalits against exploitation by upper castes. He made a laughing stock of himself before actress Rakhi Sawant, who had been a participant in a previous season, publicly pointing out to him that he had had a lucky escape as the show compelled its participants into acts that might have destroyed his political career.

For all his love of the silver screen, however, his most enduring image is of him crawling under a barbed wire fence at the Ramabai Ambedkar Nagar in north east Mumbai in 1997. Someone had desecrated a bust of Babasaheb Ambedkar by garlanding it with chappals overnight and a protesting Dalit youth had been killed in police firing a week earlier. The Shiv Sena and BJP coalition were ruling Maharashtra and that incident caused the then BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan to lose his Lok Sabha seat the next year. Athawale should have been at the basti earlier for he had been social welfare minister in the previous government of Sharad Pawar, who had picked him essentially for his rabble-rousing skills on Dalit issues.

His late arrival more than a week later, dressed to kill like a gentleman and offering mere lip service, angered the youths no end-- they ran after him with sticks and stones and drove him under the fence as the gate was too far away to make his escape in time.

That timely escape told even Sharad Pawar, his political mentor thus far, that Ramdas Athawale was of not much political consequence any longer. Soon the Nationalist Congress Party had no room for him.Athawale then gravitated towards the Congress and then the Shiv Sena with little success in either. He had better luck with the BJP which, in need of a Dalit face, made him a minister. But Amit Shah was quicker to realise Athawale’s real worth and did not waste any party ticket on him either at the 2019 Lok Sabha elections or even the subsequent Assembly polls despite Athawale pleading for a few.

Athawale is the classic example of what Prof. Ramesh Kamble of Bombay University describes as the Dalit leader who is of no consequence except at the behest of mainstream parties which give only limited power to satisfy the individual but never enough to empower the community.

Athawale was made a minister by Pawar in Maharashtra but not at the Centre, while the BJP made him a minister at the Centre but reduced him to nothing in his home state. Now Athawale is in search of relevance again and so at Bhima Koregaon on January 1 this year, swore to bring back Devendra Fadnavis again as chief minister. How, it was not clear because Fadnavis has tried every trick in the book so far and not succeeded. Athawale is, however, lucky that he was not run out of Bhima Koregaon this time for they could not have forgotten that it was the Fadnavis government which was responsible for the trouble in Bhima Koregaon in the first place and the main reason for jailing of activists in the case.

But, I guess, Athawale is once again talking through his hat and bringing some comic relief with his silly rhymes to a grim scenario by wishing for an unlikely remarriage between the Shiv Sena and the BJP. The bride (Sena) has already eloped and set up home with the knight in shining armour (NCP-Congress) and the groom (Fadnavis) is still standing at the altar.

The only person missing was the high priest--and we now have him in Ramdas Athawale!

(The writer is Consulting Editor, National Herald, Mumbai)

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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